Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Evolution of Useful Things (1992)

In The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts -- From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers -- Came to be as They Are (1992), Henry Petroski unleashes his research skills on the entirety of invented and designed material culture and asks the question: why? Rather than follow the traditional wisdom that "form follows function," Petroski argues that form really follows failure. Instead of there being one, predestined, "right" way for something to work, invention and design work as a form of evolution where new ideas build on the failure of old ideas to accomplish things as well as the inventor would like.

Petroski covers an admirable amount of stuff in this one volume -- some objects in brief case studies, and others in more detailed chapters. The archivist in me particularly loved the chapter on fasteners (straight pins, ribbons, seals, paper clips, staples, etc.), since I have come across many a rusty ancient and oddly-shaped paper fastener in my day. Research in patent files, corporate histories, and biographical information on little-known inventors all enrich the author's argument.

At his best when analyzing and admiring the ideas and people that change material culture, the flow of the narrative is occasionally brought to a halt when Petroski stops to hammer on his "form follows failure" thesis to excess and brings the discussion away from the physical artifacts and into the land of theory. He also throws in a few weirdly curmudgeonly rants against poorly designed forks and people who throw half-full bottles of soda into plastic garbage cans.

Overall this is an excellent book for anyone interested in engineering, design, or why a paperclip looks like a paperclip. Also recommended: Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, which is one of my favorites.


jlowe said...

This book sounds very interesting and I would like to borrow it from you at some point. But I have a major book backlog at the moment.
I also think this could help with archaeological analysis

Spacebeer said...

Yeah, I was thinking you would like this one while I read it -- much better written than that gin book, too. Just let me know when you have time for it!

Lei-Leen said...

me! me!